An unlikely run to the South Carolina Class AAAA state quarterfinals appeared headed for disaster when the Aiken High School boys basketball team trailed Wando 15-3 after the first quarter.
But Hornets head coach Tony Harrell got the attention of his players and quickly devised what he hoped would be a game-saving adjustment. Harrell took a risk by abandoning his team’s typically dominant man-to-man defense.
“We scrapped it, I mean we scrapped it and we went to our 2-3 matchup zone,” Harrell said.
“We were able to basically shut them down for the next three quarters after we made that change.”
Aiken went on to win by 10 points, an upset that sent the third-seeded Hornets to the state semifinals for the first time since 2006.
Harrell, The Augusta Chronicle’s South Carolina high school basketball coach of the year, said it took five years of work to make it happen.
“When I took the job, the principal said there were some things we needed to straighten out, and we’ve been able to do that,” Harrell said. “I’m came into a young team starting over.”
Aiken didn’t post a winning record until Harrell’s third season. He recalls the early years like nostalgic nightmares, describing long days and evenings because of practice logistics. With five teams sharing one gym and some players needing rides home, he said he regularly didn’t get home until after midnight.
“It’s been a process,” he said. “It starts with the JV program. The JV program has been tremendous the last couple of years. When they get to me they know what to expect and we just continue building on the foundation that we lay in ninth grade.”
Senior Devante Butler, who led the team in scoring and also directed the defensive effort, said the players embraced Harrell’s coaching style early in the season.
“He’s going to ride you but at the same time, if he sees something in you that’s the reason why he rides you,” Butler said. “If he’s not talking to you, then you might want to up your level of play because that means that you aren’t doing something right. You want him to yell at you because he sees something in you. He also encourages you. He’ll tell you if you’re doing something wrong.”
Harrell, a North Augusta High School graduate who got his coaching start at Cheraw High School, had eight seniors leading this year’s squad, and the results weren’t always positive. The team struggled early and finished third in Region 5-AAAA.
Butler provided an offensive spark, but the team relied heavily on its defense.
“The one thing that we do well around here, we play good defense,” Harrell said. “So we know going in to the games we play we’re going to have a chance to win a lot of games because we’re tough-minded defensively.”
Harrell credited his team’s versatility on the defensive end as the reason for the big playoff push. Though they spent most of the state playoffs on the road against better ranked teams, the Hornets didn’t lose until meeting region opponent Lexington, which was familiar with Aiken’s play.
“ We played some teams in the playoffs that hadn’t seen the defensive intensity that we bring,” Harrell said. “We were able to go on the road and shut down teams scoring 60, 70 points (per game), and we were holding them in the 40s because they hadn’t seen teams play defense they way we play.”
Lexington, which beat Aiken twice in the regular season, held on for an eight-point win to advance to the state finals and end the Hornets’ season.